Kim Wilde Interview: Going Live
Kim Wilde has rarely taken a conventional approach to the business of being a pop star. But now, a mere 38 years after her chart debut, she’s finally ready to release a live album. “I feel like I’ve been working up to this point my whole life,” she tells Paul Kirkley…
“My career kind of happened back to front,” says Kim Wilde, reflecting on her four-decade journey across the shifting sands of pop. “Sometimes I look at other artists who came out fully formed, like Lady Gaga or Madonna, and I think: how did they know how to do that so young? I’m only discovering myself now. It’s a really strange thing. But we all have our own paths to make, and mine is a curious and unique one, I think.”
Few, surely, would argue with that. Key to this voyage of self-discovery, meanwhile, has been the 58-year-old’s slow, cautious passage to becoming a fully-fledged live performer, which last year culminated in her hitting the road for her first headline tour in more than 30 years.
“It was very clear, as soon as the tour started, that something really special was going on,” she recalls of those 2018 shows in support of her turbo-charged Here Come The Aliens album. “There was a really great energy about the record, and it transferred instantly into the live situation. It was the best tour I’ve ever been involved in doing, working with the best band that I’ve ever worked with. So we felt it was time to put it down on tape.”
Coming Late To The Game
Hence the arrival this month of her first live album, showcasing songs of every Wilde vintage – from the sugar-rush electropop of opener Stereo Shot (from Here Come the Aliens) to a euphoric encore of Kids In America – recorded at dates across Britain and Europe.
“A lot of artists start out playing live and then progress, whereas I’ve sort of progressed to playing live,” observes Kim. “I came a bit late to all that. I guess I just didn’t make it my thing. I’ve sort of grown into myself at a rather later age.”
This is all the more surprising because, as the daughter of 50s heartthrob Marty Wilde and former Vernon Girls singer Joyce Baker, Kim was practically raised in the wings of theatres and concert halls. “I was born to perform,” she agrees. “I know when I was watching my dad from the side of stage, all the time some part of me was longing to be there, doing the same.”
Aliens Live is dedicated to her father. “It was him who inspired me to want to be on stage and entertain,” she says. “The joy of it has never left him. He still loves life on the road.”
But while Marty Wilde earned his stripes playing rock’n’roll, Kim was discovered by RAK records boss and pop svengali Mickie Most while laying down backing vocals for her brother Ricky. Which is how, before her feet could touch the ground, the 20-year-old found herself on Top Of The Pops, pouting sulkily beneath a peroxide feather cut to the urgent throb of the Ricky/Marty-penned Kids In America.
A run of naggingly catchy singles – Chequered Love, Water On Glass, Cambodia – followed, and by the end of the 80s, Hertfordshire’s “suburban Monroe” was the decade’s most charted British female artist. None of which left much time – or much incentive – for slogging round provincial tramsheds honing her live craft.
“I did a bit of touring, but it wasn’t a big part of my career,” says Kim. “A bigger part of my career was making videos, travelling, doing a lot of TV. And a lot of miming – I was the best in the business!”
Justify My Place
One live engagement she did undertake in the late 80s was supporting Michael Jackson on the European leg of his stadium-munching Bad tour. With audiences averaging between 80,0000 and 100,000, it was quite the baptism of fire.
“It was one of those sink or swim situations,” recalls Kim. “I didn’t have an option to not be good. I had to find a way to justify being on stage for half an hour before Michael Jackson. Believe me, it took a lot for me to get my head around that. When I first got offered it, I said no, I can’t do this, this is crazy. I’m not ready for it, I’m not a seasoned performer. But then, of course, I had my mum telling me I can do anything, like mums do. So I took it on, and it paid off. It was an inspiring time, watching him at the peak of his career.”
Inspiring, perhaps. But it also afforded her a cautionary glimpse into the rarefied upper echelons of pop superstardom. “It was very sobering,” says Kim, who met the headline act only briefly, during a photocall. “Seeing the circus that surrounded him, I felt very lucky that I could go home and still go down to Tesco, and that life could be pretty normal for me.
“I just knew that it would have killed me, that lifestyle. It would have crushed my spirit. I would have felt like a caged animal. I’m sure he did feel like that a lot.”
A couple of years later, Kim opened for David Bowie on his Sound+Vision Tour. “That was amazing. He was a really sweet, lovely guy, very much more down to earth. He’d pop in and wish me luck, and gave me a bunch of flowers when the tour started. I remember I was just completely infatuated with him.“
There were times, admits Kim, when “it felt like things were going to go on forever”. But Dame Pop is a fickle mistress. “There were lots of ups and downs. There were albums that came out that disappeared very quickly. I’d had to adjust to a lot of success and a lot of people making a big fuss of me, and then I had to adjust to people doing exactly the opposite. There were some hard lessons to learn along the way. It was a rollercoaster, and I think it did take its toll on my confidence a lot of the time.”
Turning 30, Kim found herself in a dark place: exhausted by the demands of the pop treadmill, she fell into a period of depression. She was also lonely, and more than anything just craved a normal family life where, as she told one newspaper, she could spend her days doing the school run and picking up her husband’s underpants.
That dream of domestic bliss – dirty smalls and all – came true when she married musical theatre star Hal Fowler, with whom she has two grown-up children, Harry and Rose. She also executed one of pop’s more unusual career swerves by reinventing herself as a horticulturalist (winning a gold medal at Chelsea Flower Show for her troubles).
“I was totally out of love with my career,” she explains. “So I got out. If something’s not fun anymore, you’ve got to stop doing it. I was bored of being Kim Wilde.”
By this point, she was convinced she’d sung Kids In America for the last time, claiming she “never wanted to hear that bloody song again”.
“I really did think that,” she says. “And for a few years, when I was being asked to tour with the likes of Nik Kershaw and ABC, I turned it down.” But the thought of joining some of her favourite chart contemporaries – plus “a bit of cash” – eventually persuaded her to dip a toe in the water and join the bill of the 2001 Here & Now 80s package tour.
“I just thought, well, it’d be fantastic to be on the road with The Human League and Clare Grogan,” she recalls. “But I didn’t really count on the amazing reception that I got from the public. As soon as I went on stage, I knew I felt fantastic about it. I think that was when I started to reinvent myself, although I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time. I thought I was going to do the tour, and then come home and just get on with life.”
A Whole New Me
Prior to the tour, Kim had been certain no one would be interested in hearing “a Hertfordshire housewife and mother-of-two” belting out her old hits. “I felt the public really only had one version of me they wanted to see, and I really wasn’t that girl any more,” she says. “But it turns out that they weren’t that fussed that I wasn’t quite size 8 anymore, or not 21 anymore – or not available anymore! They love me, mortgage and all.”
With hindsight, she probably knew, even in her darkest hour, that she wasn’t really done with music, or it with her. “I got really excited about being Mrs Fowler, and having children, and horticulture, and that kind of filled the gap for a while. But music was always knocking on the back door; it was always there waiting for me to fall in love with it again. That’s the nature of love: it ebbs and flows, and the love affair I’ve had with music has been like that. But when it came back, it was stronger than ever. That’s the amazing thing.
“When I started playing again, I really felt that I was developing as a live artist. My voice was stronger, for starters. It had matured, and I discovered I had this much wider range, which has only got better and better.”
If the Here & Now shows rekindled her passion for pop, it was the Here Come The Aliens Tour that fully ignited the flame. As well as embracing costume changes and dance routines for the first time in her career, Kim is enjoying the whole experience of life on the road. “I love going from town to town,” she says. “That’s still romantic for me.
“It’s a beautiful thing, a rare thing,” she adds. “I’m in a small minority of people on the planet who get to stand on a stage and be adored. I can’t pretend that isn’t a phenomenal feeling. It’s sort of real and it’s not real. I don’t expect that kind of response from people all the time. Gigs are just of the moment, and they create their own special energy.”
It helps, of course, to have her brother and lifelong musical soulmate Ricky on stage, along with her niece Scarlett and two drummers, Emily Dolan Davies and Jonathan Atkinson – a trick she happily admits to stealing from her old pal Adam Ant. “As a unit, we’re incredibly strong,” she says, “and we have a lot of fun travelling together.”
So much fun, in fact, that they haven’t really stopped. This summer, the KW roadshow continues to roll across Europe, and in December she’ll be back in the UK for her Wilde Winter Acoustic tour. Plus there are “exciting plans” in store for 2020. “Next year is a big year for me, because I’m 60,” she says. “So we’re going to celebrate in style.”
As she approaches her seventh decade, then, it’s clear Kim Wilde has figured out how to successfully combine the roles of laundry-gathering Hertfordshire housewife and platinum pop bombshell.
“I feel like I’ve been working up to this point my whole life,” she beams. “And that’s really exciting. I don’t look back and wish for who I was. The past has its place, and I have some wonderful memories. But this is the place I really need to be right now.”